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Workers in a ‘world-class' city

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As Delhi gets ready for the Commonwealth Games, the city's glitter is being built through forced labour of from the rural hinterlands…

The glitter and ground realities... Photo: AP
The glitter and ground realities... Photo: AP

D elhi is proverbially believed to have been built and re-built seven times in its long and chequered history. The city today is in the final stages of being frenetically refurbished and polished, for display to 5,000 sports competitors and an expected 1.2 million spectators from 85 countries, for the third largest international sporting event of the world. In preparation for the Commonwealth Games, scheduled in October 2010, an estimated Rs. 26,000 crores have been spent in Delhi over the past three years. The investments include a Games Village in the ecologically fragile bed of the river Yamuna, eight international sports stadiums (many of which are likely to remain unutilised after the Games), 25 under-bridges and over-bridges, underground parking lots, an extended metro-line and eight-lane highways, and a sparkling new international airport. The operative over-used word deployed by public leaders and officials to describe the city of their aspirations is ‘world-class'. But despite the extravagance of public expenditure, this does not amount to an eighth reconstruction of this ancient historic city, but rather to a glossy plastic veneer being cast over an old, choked, crumbling edifice.

In the shadows

Forgotten in the shadows of this feverish new glitter are the men and women whose toil has made the garish make-over of this city possible. At its peak in 2008-09, an estimated one hundred thousand workers had converged on the metropolis, driven often by desperate poverty from several of India's rural backwaters: Bihar, Jharkhand, Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Chhatisgarh. It is on the shoulders of India's poorest people that this ‘new' city is being built. Government agencies have been cynically complicit in withholding from them their legal rights, of fair wages, decent living conditions and safe and secure work conditions. These agencies contract the construction to large building companies, and these sub-contract them to a series of intermediary agencies, which in turn further continue downward cycles of sub-contracting. At the bottom of this pyramid are labour contractors, who recruit desperately poor workers from India's impoverished rural hinterlands. Rarely are these workers employed for more than a few months, after which they are replaced by a fresh batch from an unending army of impoverished men in a stagnant dead-end rural economy. It is a clear strategy to not allow them to organise or demand their elementary legal rights.

During the Asiad Games in 1982, the infrastructure of the city was built by tens of hundred thousand exploitatively low-paid workers. This time round, more than a quarter century later, pre-fabricated structures and capital intensive technology have enabled shorter completion cycles and a reduced demand for labour, but the conditions of workers remain as exploitative as in the past. The Supreme Court, in its significant judgement in the Asiad Workers' case in 1982, had ruled that ‘when a person provides labour or service to another for a remuneration which is less than the minimum wage, the labour or service provided by him falls within the ambit of forced labour'. By these standards, the stark truth is that the glitter of Delhi manufactured for display to international guests, is constructed by forced labour. These are the workers of the ‘world class' city of Delhi.

Shirking responsibility

What is unconscionable is that central and state government agencies and officials, who are themselves the principal employers, or are responsible to implement or enforce the legal rights of the workers, refused to do this, despite continuous and exemplary vigilance by non-official groups, and judicial interventions. The Coalition for Workers, Women and Children, an alliance of 22 organisations mobilised by Mobile Creches, and the People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) painstakingly documented serious and pervasive legal violations of the rights of workers to minimum wages, decent living and work conditions, and social security. PUDR filed a petition with the Delhi High Court to enforce the law and ensure better conditions of work and residence for the workers. The High Court in turn appointed a Monitoring Committee which included Arundhati Ghose, a former diplomat, and Lakshmidhar Mishra, Special Rapporteur of the NHRC. The Committee visited 10 work sites and labour colonies, and confirmed in a damning report to the Court most of the charges made by the petitioners to the High Court. But the months passed, and in the countdown to the celebrated Games, little changed in the lives of the workers.

The workers are housed in all sites in sub-human tenements. Makeshift rooms are assembled from asbestos sheets, typically without windows and ventilation: oppressively hot in summer and freezing in winter. In small spaces of around 50 square feet, four or more workers are lodged in beds with only plywood sheets. The few common toilets are rarely cleaned, and mostly open taps substitute for bathing spaces. There are no arrangements for sewerage and drainage, therefore we found in many colonies that the tenements were surrounded by vast stagnant stinking cesspools, infested with mosquitoes and flies. The settlements are located too close to the construction sites, and therefore covered always with thick dust. There are few crèches or schools for children of workers. The colonies defy all prescriptions under labour laws for decent, ventilated dwellings with basic services necessary for the health and hygiene of workers and their families.

The overwhelming majority of the workers are temporary casual workers: a study by the Coalition found 84 per cent of the workers are casual; 10 per cent skilled workers were on contract; and only five per cent were regular. Most workers reported being paid well below the statutory minimum wages, let alone fair wages. They are paid in cash, illegally without pay slips, so there is no record of their employment or wages. This results in large illegal earnings by employers. Activists have calculated, for instance, that in the CWG Village alone, employers have earned an extra Rs. six crores by withholding minimum wages. Workers are paid only for the days they actually work, and they were denied paid weekly holidays. Wages are often paid late, and a part of the wages withheld by contractors to prevent workers from leaving employment prematurely. Women are rarely employed, and where they are, they are paid less than men. We even found teenage boys in some sites.

Abysmal conditions

Workers often labour without elementary safety precautions, like helmets, masks and gloves. If workers are given boots, the costs of these are sometimes cut from their wages. Accidents were reported from almost all the sites, but these were rarely reported to the Commissioner, Workmen's Compensation, and their legal reparation was withheld or diluted. Rarely are medical services available on site, beyond a first aid kit.

I spoke with many of the young men in the unkempt labour camps that hide behind the opulent constructions. They accepted the grime of their living spaces, their exploitative 12-hour shifts, their illegally low wages, and the loneliness of their uprootment, with not just resignation, but something that even resembled gratitude. They were grateful that the city's profligate aspirations allowed them to survive, even amidst its in-hospitability and cynical exploitation.

There are more than 260 laws on the Indian statute books designed to secure fair wages, and decent work and living conditions for workers, but none of these has illuminated the lives of the workers who rebuilt the capital city. Before October this year, no doubt their ramshackle labour settlements will be cleared and the workers despatched back to the hinterland from which they were recruited. We can be assured that they will not encumber the resplendent display of the ‘world-class city' for our global guests.

Most workers reported being paid well below the statutory minimum wages…in cash, illegally without pay slips, so there is no record of their employment or wages.


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